In American English, some slang words come and go. And some stay and stay.
Or as Walt Whitman poetically observed in his 1885 defense of American slang, complete with creative spelling: "Slang ... is the wholesome fermentation or eructation of those processes eternally active in language, by which froth and specks are thrown up, mostly to pass away; though occasionally to settle and permanently chrystallize."
What gives a slang word stickability?
"I have no idea what makes a slang word stick," says Tom Dalzell, author of a slew of books on slang, including Vietnam War Slang and Flappers 2 Rappers: American Youth Slang. "Connie Eble from the University of North Carolina has our best corpus of American college slang, and she estimates that only about 10 percent of the slang terms used survive a year."
Dalzell jaws, "What makes 'cool' last for 68 years without fading? What is it about 'hip' that let it morph into hep, hipcat, hepcat, hipster, hippie (jazz sense), hippie (flower child), hip-hop, and hipster — new hipster? Why did groovy go from very popular in 1945 to dead to back to life in 1965? There is no predicting whether a new word will stick. None at all."
From the trash bin of popular culture, here are seven long-lost slang words from America's past:
1) Moll buzzer, 1870s. A criminal, especially a pickpocket or a pickpocket's accomplice, who preys on women. Example: Habitual criminal Molly Holbrook "has taken as her companion one Jim Hoya who is known to the police detectives as a 'moll buzzer,' a man who follows a female pickpocket about, and receives from her the 'leathers' taken from a woman in public gatherings." From the Chicago Daily Tribune on July 26, 1874.
2) Dingus, 1890s. A nebulous, unspecified object. Example: Nineteenth century slang may have crescendoed in the 1890s with this report on a new game: Tiddledywinks. "You take a wink, put it on the dingus, press a tiddledy on the wink and make it jump into the winkpot. ... If you succeed, you are entitled to a difficiety and for every wink you jump into the dingpot, from the duwink you count a flictiddledy and you keep on operating the tinkwinkle upon the pollywog until the points so carried equal the sum total of the bogwip multiplied by the putertinktum and added to the contents of the winkpot or words to that effect and you have won the game." From the Tribune in McCook, Neb., on April 24, 1891. And, while writing about operating a coal stove, a Wisconsin person noted this in the Appeal in Memphis, Tenn., on Dec. 28, 1873: "We turned every dingus in the stove that was movable."
3) Spizzerinctum, 1920s. High spirits, nerve. Example: A Baptist Sunday school class seeking new recruits advertised: "Red hot lessons with pep and spizzerinctum — a room to ourselves — and we're going to have a larger class than the girls." From the Headlight in Deming, N.M., on Jan. 23, 1920.
4) Woofy, 1920s. A nonsense word — from flapper slang — that could be inserted into just about any context. Example: "When Shirley appeared on the beach, she was wearing oil-skin tights, painted over with birds and hearts and things, sort of woofy, if you get me." From The New York Times on May 8, 1922.
5) Bazoo, 1940s. Mouth. Example: "Senator Bilbo settled down on the good salary and side-graft of the office and never opened his bazoo." From the Daily News in Ludington, Mich., on March 7, 1949.
6) Fracture, 1950s. Fill with delight, causing laughter. Example: In a movie review, entertainer Frankie Laine said, "Born Yesterday fractured me, had me in the aisle. Judy Holliday is terrific." From the Daily Courier in Connellsville, Pa., on March 29, 1951.
7) Ginchy, 1950s. Excellent. Example: Columnist Stan Delaplane wrote of hearing the hit song "Tan Shoes with Pink Shoelaces" coming from his 15-year-old daughter's room. "For hours I could hear the radio — tuned to a — ginchy, I believe is the word — tuned to a ginchy station." From the Standard-Examiner in Ogden, Utah, on May 12, 1959.
We asked Tom Dalzell if he ever worries that American English might become so overwhelmed by slang words that daily discourse becomes too fractious to serve as a common tongue.
"One function of slang," Dalzell explains, "is to establish membership in a group, and so the possibility exists that regional and local slangs might Balkanize American English, but I don't see this happening."
(This post has been updated.)